Tackling the loneliness epidemic

26 October 2018

Government efforts to address it need the help of churches, says Lorraine Cavanagh

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FIGURES released this year by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that ten per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds are often or always lonely, and 25 per cent are lonely for at least some of the time.

The figure jumps to 30 per cent for 35- to 54-year-olds, but drops, somewhat surprisingly, to ten per cent among 65- to 74-year-olds.

Statistics suggest that loneliness begins in childhood. A recent study by the ONS ranks the UK almost lowest on the scale (second only to Germany) among European countries for fostering and maintaining relationships outside the immediate home environment. Even the most loving home can foster a citadel mentality when it comes to encouraging children to engage confidently with their neighbours. Loneliness and a general mistrust or fear of others fosters low self-esteem and a consequent reluctance to join in social activities. The child then risks becoming an alienated adolescent who will carry fear and loneliness into adult life.

 

LONELINESS, if not properly recognised in childhood, lingers on into adult life, asserting itself, sometimes subconsciously, when careers and family claim most of our energy and attention. Despite the fact that these are years when we are often at our most sociable, loneliness seems to derive from a sense of disconnection, or alienation, from other people.

Loneliness is not simply a matter of being physically alone. You can feel acute loneliness in a room filled with people. Loneliness can also be felt as a disconnection from things that bring meaning to our lives, including the work that we do and the interests that we pursue.

Retirement is especially lonely for those whose work has been personally rewarding. Meaning and purpose cease the day they retire.

Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “loneliness is the want of intimacy.” As a result of this want, many people are living in a state of quiet desperation, a desperate desire to know for whom they exist and what life’s purpose truly is. The artificial company that we keep on social media could be said to have grown out of a desperate need for meaning and purpose in the context of what is largely mistaken for genuine friendship.

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The selfie culture is not just narcissism: it is the expression of a need for intimacy. Photographing ourselves comes from a desire to affirm that we really exist, that we are not invisible. It replicates the “I was here” graffiti of the past, before the internet made it respectable.

Even when the photograph posted is not, strictly speaking, a selfie, it still asserts that the person posting it is in a certain place, with certain people — engaged, perhaps, in a particular activity — but it seldom invites meaningful response, although it may instigate a thread that can either descend into the banal or quickly become acrimonious and personal.

This is because whatever is being done or said, once posted, is simply “out there” and permissible, even if the remarks would not be made if the people were in the same room.

The internet does not assuage loneliness. In fact, it can exacerbate it, and even lead to pathological dependency, manifested in a driving need to know if we have been “liked” or “retweeted”.

None of this is to deny the benefits of social media — it is, after all, social. It can keep us in touch with those we would otherwise lose sight of, and it can revive old friendships; but it can also lead to alienation and mistrust. An ill-considered remark on Facebook or Twitter, or an ill-judged email, can leave a person feeling exposed, and, as a result, damage his or her sense of self: damage that is often hard to repair. Repairing online hurt begins with taking the time to think of how a tweet or an email will be received.

 

THE Government’s initiative to tackle loneliness through a programme of social prescribing (News, 19 October) suggests that an important connection is being made between sociality and the well-being of the individual. People are often isolated and lonely because they fear or distrust others, as they have perhaps been conditioned to do in childhood.

At present, we are seeing the fear of others crystallise into alienation and a form of xenophobia. The fragmentation of our country, as a result of the bitterness being generated by the Brexit crisis, is leading to a catastrophic breakdown of trust in the political system, with potentially dire consequences for future relations between friends and neighbours. The same is true of our relations with Europe. We are heading for a dangerous kind of loneliness.

Churches have been working to alleviate loneliness for decades. They will support this Government initiative if they create a climate of trust in the way in which they behave as a worshipping community. The alienated and lonely person will be wary of a Church that either marginalises certain people or is anxious about numbers and its own financial viability. Welcoming the stranger to the Church’s heavenly party involves seeking out the lonely person and making them know that they are loved for their own sake.

 

The Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh is a priest in the Church in Wales and the author of In Such Times: Reflections on living with fear (Wipf & Stock).

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